It's no wonder that famous tennis players are deeply committed to their game, enjoying the pleasure of playing but leaving the court moody and spiteful. Picasso enjoyed painting, but as soon as he put down his brush, he turned into a rather unpleasant man. Bobby Fischer, the chess genius, always seemed out of place except when his mind was on chess. These and countless similar examples are a reminder that having achieved a state of flow during an activity does not necessarily guarantee that it will be spread to the rest of life.
If we enjoy work and friendship, and face every challenge as an opportunity to develop new skills, we will receive the rewards of life that is outside the realm of normal life. However, even this is not enough to guarantee us an optimal experience. As long as the enjoyment that follows each activity is not linked together in a meaningful way, people remain vulnerable to the uncertainty of chaos. Even the most successful career, the deepest family ties, eventually became exhausted. Sooner or later, the commitment to work must be diminished. The spouse dies, the children grow up and leave the nest. In order to access the optimal experience as nearly as possible, the final step in conscious control is necessary.
This step involves turning the whole life into a unified flow experience. If an individual outlines a plan to achieve a goal of sufficient difficulty, from which all other goals are reasonably directed, and if he or she invests all his energy in developing the skills to achieve that goal, then actions and emotions will be in harmony, separate parts of life will be compatible with each other, and each activity will have meaning in the present, as well as in the past and future. In that way, giving meaning to a person's entire life is possible.
But isn't it naïve to expect life to have an overall meaning throughout? After all, at least since Nietzsche concluded that God is dead, philosophers and social scientists have been busy proving that existence is aimless, that opportunity and inhuman resources dominate our destiny and that all values are relative, therefore, arbitrary. It is true that life has no meaning, if we mean a supreme goal embedded in the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But that's not why life can't have meaning. Much of what we call culture and civilization lies primarily in the efforts people have made, often to combat great adversities, in order to create a sense of purpose for themselves and their descendants. Realizing that life, in itself, is meaningless, is one thing. Accepting it with resignation is quite another. The first reality doesn't entail the second, just as the fact that we don't have wings doesn't stop us from flying.
From an individual's perspective, it doesn't matter what the end goal is, as long as it's compelling enough to invest lifetime's worth of mental energy. The challenge may involve the desire to have the most epic beer bottle collection in the neighborhood, the determination to find a cure for cancer, or simply the biological requirement of having healthy and successful children. As long as it provides specific goals, clear rules of action, a way to stay focused and be engaged, then any goal can serve to give meaning to one's life.
Over the last few years, I've gotten to know quite a bit with Muslim professionals — electronic engineers, pilots, businessmen and teachers, mostly from Saudi Arabia and from other Gulf states. When I chatted with them, I was impressed by the relaxation that most of them have even under great pressure. The people I asked about this shared with me the same message, in different ways, saying, "That's nothing. We are not discouraged because we believe that our lives are in God's hands and whatever he decides will be good to us." This kind of implicit belief was once widespread in our culture, but now it's not easy to find. Many of us have to discover for ourselves a goal that will give meaning to life without the help of a traditional faith.
WHAT DOES THE MEANING MEAN
Meaning is a difficult concept to define, as any definition runs the risk of becoming a vicious circle. How can we talk about the meaning of meaning? There are three ways to unpack the meaning of the word, which helps shed light on the final step to achieving an optimal experience. Its first use points to the end, the purpose, the importance of something, as in the sentence: What is the meaning of life? The implication of the word reflects the assumption that events are linked together according to an ultimate goal; that there is a chronological order, a causal connection between them. It assumes that phenomena are not random, but are divided into recognizable patterns, guided by an end goal. The second usage of the word refers to the intentions of an individual, as in the sentence: "She usually means well." The meaning that this word (good intention) implies is that people reveal their purpose through action; that their goals are expressed in predictable, consistent, and orderly ways. Finally, the third meaning in which the word is used is to give information, as when it is said: Otolaryngology means the study of the ear, nose and throat, or: Red skies in the evening mean good weather in the morning. The implication of this meaning (that is) indicates the character of different words, the relationship between events, and therefore it helps to clarify, establish order between irrelevant or conflicting information.
Creating meaning, involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating an individual's actions into a unified flow experience. The three meanings of the word "meaning" outlined above shed light on how this can be accomplished. People who find their lives meaningful often have a goal that is challenging enough to capture all their energy — a goal that can bring importance to their lives. We can think of this process as the process of achieving a goal. To experience flow, one must set goals for action: win a game, make friends with someone, accomplish something in a certain way. The goal itself is often unimportant; What matters is the goal of focusing an individual's attention and linking it in an enjoyable, actionable activity. In the same way, some people can carry the same distinctly focused focus on their mental energy, throughout their entire lives. The unrelated goals of separate flow activities merge into a complete set of challenges that give purpose to everything that the person does. There are different ways to establish this disambiguation. Napoleon devoted his life, never minding the deaths of hundreds of thousands of French soldiers in the process, to the sole purpose of pursuing power. Mother Teresa invested all her energy in helping the unfortunate and helpless, because her life was given a purpose by an unconditional love based on faith in God, in a spiritual order beyond her ability to feel.
From the point of view of pure psychology, Napoleon and Mother Teresa, both of them could have reached the same level of intrinsic purpose and thus acquired optimal experience. The apparent differences between the two suggest a broader moral question: What are the consequences of these two ways of giving meaning to life? We can conclude that Napoleon brought chaos to thousands of lives, while Mother Teresa helped alleviate entropy in the consciousness of many. But here, we shall not try to speak of judgment based on the objective value of action; Instead we will be more interested in the humble task of describing the subjective order that a unified purpose brings to the consciousness of the individual. In this sense, the answer to the ancient riddle "What is the meaning of life?" turned out to be amazingly simple. The meaning of life means: no matter what you do, no matter where you come from, a unified purpose is what will give meaning to life.
The second meaning of the word meaning alludes to the manifestation of intention. And this meaning is also consistent with the problem of how to create meaning by turning the whole life into a flow activity. It is not enough to find a purpose that can unify an individual's goals, one must confront and overcome its challenges. The purpose must lead to effort; Intent must be translated into action. We can call this determination in the pursuit of one's goals. What matters is not how much one actually achieves the goals one sets; Rather, what matters is whether effort is spent to achieve the goal rather than being scattered or wasted. Hamlet remarked, "the fire of determination which had just flared faded before the creeping light of that thought, and great and noble expectations had to change direction, unable to turn into action." There are few things sadder than coming across someone who knows exactly what he should be doing but can't muster enough energy to do it. As Blake wrote with his familiar penmanship, "He who desires but does not act creates epidemics."
The third and final way for life to gain meaning is the result of the previous two steps. When an important goal is pursued with determination and all of an individual's diverse activities fit together into a unified flow experience, harmony is brought to consciousness as a result. The person who recognizes his desires and works with the aim to achieve them is the one who has feelings, thoughts and actions in accordance with each other and thus he has achieved inner harmony. In the 1960s, this process was called "unifying your mind," but in virtually every other historical period, a similar concept was used to describe the step required to live this good life. A person who retains a state of harmony no matter what he does, no matter what is happening to him, is one who knows that his mental energy is not wasted on feelings of doubt, regret, guilt, and fear, but is always used in a useful way. Inner harmony ultimately leads to the inner strength and serenity we still admire in those who seem to have been reconciled to themselves.
Purpose, determination, and harmony help unify life and give it meaning by making it a seamless flow experience. Anyone who achieves this state will never truly feel deprived of anything else. A conscious person is a very orderly person inside, there is no need to be afraid of unexpected events, or even death. Every moment of life will be meaningful and most will be enjoyable. So, how to get there?
In many people's lives, we can find a unified purpose to justify all the things they do every day—a goal like a magnetic field that attracts their mental energy, a goal on which all smaller goals depend. This goal will determine the challenges an individual needs to face in order to turn his or her life into a flow activity. Without such a goal, even the most orderly consciousness lacks meaning.
Throughout human history, countless attempts have been made to discover the ultimate goals that will give meaning to the experience. These efforts are often very different. For example, in ancient Greek civilization, according to social philosopher Hannah Arendt, men sought to achieve immortality through heroic deeds, while in Christian society, people in general hoped to achieve eternal life through holy works. In Arendt's opinion, the ultimate goal must be to settle the problem of death: they must give people an extended goal after death. Both immortality and eternity reach this, but in very different ways. The Greek heroes performed noble deeds to attract admiration from their compatriots, hoping that their highly personal acts of bravery would be passed down in songs and stories passed down from generation to generation. Their identity, thanks to this, will continue to live on in the memory of generations of descendants. Saints, on the contrary, renounced individuality in order to unite their thoughts and actions with God's will, wishing to live forever after union with Him. The hero and the holy man, devoting all their spiritual energy to a goal that encompasses all else, which prescribes a coherent pattern of behavior to follow until death, turning their lives into unified flow experiences. Other members of society have established their less outrageous actions based on these outrageous models, which provide a less obvious meaning, but more or less commensurate with their own lives.
Each human culture, by definition, contains systems of meaning that can serve as the fulfilling purpose by which individuals can set their goals. For instance, Pitrim Sorokin divided the different epochs of Western civilization into three types that he believed had existed interspersed with each other for more than twenty-five centuries, sometimes lasting hundreds of years, sometimes just a few decades. He called these sensate stages, ideational stages, and idealistic stages of culture, and he tried to show that within each stage there is a different set of priorities to justify the goal of existence.
Sensory cultures are rallied around the view that reality is designed to satisfy the senses. They tend to be hedonistic, utilitarian, concerned primarily with specific needs. In such cultures, art, religion, philosophy, and everyday behavior all honor and justify goals in terms of tangible experience. According to Sorokin, sensory culture prevailed in Europe from about 440 to about 200 BC, with a peak between 420 and 400 BC; It has been dominant again in the last century, at least in progressive capitalist democracies. People in a sensory culture are not necessarily more materialistic, but they organize goals and justify their behavior with reference mainly to pleasure and practicality rather than abstract principles. The challenges they found were almost exclusively related to making life easier, more comfortable and more pleasant. They tend to identify something as good by what they feel is good and don't believe in idealized values.
Ideological cultures are organized according to a principle opposed to a sensory culture: they disregard tangible things and strive for immaterial, supernatural results. They emphasize abstract, ascetic and transcendent principles of material concerns. Art, religion, philosophy and the interpretation of everyday behavior tend to depend on an awareness of this spiritual order. People turn their attention to religion or ideology and see their challenges not in terms of making life easier, but in achieving inner clarity and inner faith. According to Sorokin, Greece from 600 to 500 BC and Western Europe from 200 BC to 400 AD were the peaks of this worldview. Closer and more disturbing examples might include Nazi Party intervention in Germany, communist regimes in Russia and China, and the resurgence of Islam in Iran.
A simple example can illustrate the differences between cultures organized around sensory and ideological principles. In our society as well as in fascist society, physical perfection is cherished and the beauty of the human body is worshipped. But the reasons for that are very different. In our sensory culture, the body is nourished to achieve health and pleasure. In an ideological culture, the body is valued primarily as a symbol of some abstract principle of metaphysical perfection related to the idea of the "superior Aryan race", or "courageous Romans". In a sensory culture, a poster of a beautiful young man can generate a gender response that will be used for commercial purposes. In an ideological culture, that same poster will make an ideological statement and be used for political purposes.
Of course, there is no point in a time that any group of people shapes their purpose through either setting up this experience and excluding the other. At any given time, different ways and different combinations of sensory worldview and ideological worldview can coexist in the same culture and even in the consciousness of the same individual. For example, the so-called yuppie lifestyle is based primarily on sensory principles, while the fundamentalism of the Biblical Belt is based on ideological premises. These two forms, in their many variants, coexist in little harmony in our current social system. And which of them, acting as a system of goals, can also help organize life into a coherent flow activity.
Not only cultures but individuals also express these systems of meaning in their behavior. Business leaders like Lee Iacocca or H. Ross Perot, whose lives are framed by specific business challenges, often reveal the best characteristics of a sensory approach to life. More primitive aspects of the sensory worldview are represented by someone like Hugh Hefner, whose "playboy philosophy" espouses the pursuit of mere pleasure. Representatives of an ill-considered type of ideological approach include thinkers and mystics who advocate simple transcendent solutions, such as blind faith in God's providence. Of course, there are many different permutations and combinations: television makers like Bakkers or Jimmy Swaggart openly encourage their audiences to value ideological goals, while their private lives pursue luxury and sensuality.
Sometimes, a culture succeeds in integrating these two dialectically opposing principles into a convincing whole, preserving the advantages of both, while nullifying the disadvantages of each. Sorokin called these cultures "idealism." This culture combines acceptance of specific sensory experiences with devotion to spiritual purpose. Western Europe of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance was classified by Sorokin as the most relatively ideal, with the highest peak reached in the first two decades of the fourteenth century. Needless to say, the idealistic solution seems to be the most appropriate one, since it avoids the apathy that is often the main theme of the pure materialist worldviews and fanatical asceticism that has plagued many systems of thought.
Sorokin's simple trident is a controversial method of categorizing culture, but it is useful in illustrating some of the principles by which people set ultimate goals for their lives. Sensory options have always been quite popular. It involves responding to specific challenges and shaping an individual's life based on flow activities that tend to bring material endings. One of its advantages is the fact that its rules are understood by everyone and that its responses tend to be clear — the desperability of health, money, power, and sexual satisfaction are rarely controversial. But the ideological option also has its advantages: the metaphysical goal may never be achieved, but accordingly, failure is almost also impossible to prove: the true believer can always distort the feedback in order to use it as a proof that he is right, that he was one of the chosen ones. Perhaps the most satisfying way to unify life into an inclusive flow activity is through the ideal type. But posing challenges that imply improving material conditions while pursuing spiritual goals is not easy, especially when culture as a whole is predominantly sensory.
Another way to describe how individuals organize their actions is to focus on the complexity of the challenges they pose on themselves rather than on their content. Perhaps the most important thing is not whether one is a sensory or ideological one, but how the goals one pursues in those areas are differentiated and integrated. As discussed at the end of chapter two, complexity depends on how well a system develops its unique traits and potentials and on how closely these traits are interconnected. In that respect, an approach to life that emphasizes feelings, is ready to respond to a variety of specific human experiences and is consistent internally, would be preferable to a blind ideology and vice versa.
There is a consensus among psychologists who have studied such topics, that people develop the concept of who they are and what they want to achieve in life in a sequence of steps. Each individual begins with a need to preserve himself, keep the body and its basic goals from disintegrating. At this point, the meaning of life is simple; It equates to survival, comfort, and pleasure. When the safety of the material person is no longer in doubt, he or she can broaden his or her systemic horizons of meaning to embrace the values of a community—family, neighborhood, religious group, or ethnicity. This step leads to more complexity for the ego, although it usually implies adherence to the principles and norms of custom. The next step in development involves reflective individualism. People once again turn inward, finding new grounds for power and values within themselves. This person ceases to obey blindly, but develops an autonomous conscience. At this stage, the main goal in life becomes the desire to develop, improve, realize one's own potential. The fourth step, based on all the previous ones, is the final step of renunciation of the ego, return to integration with others and with universal values. In this final stage, ultra-personalities — like Siddhartha letting the river control his boat — are also willing to merge his interest in the larger community.
In this scenario, building a complex system of meaning seems to imply an alternating focus of attention on oneself and on others. First, mental energy is invested in physiological needs and mental order equivalent to pleasure. When this level is temporarily achieved and the person can begin to pay attention to the goals of the community, then what has meaning corresponds to the group values – religion, patriotism, and the acceptance and respect of others provide the parameters for the inner order. The next stage of dialectics brings attention back to oneself: acquiring a sense of belonging to a larger human system, one now feels the challenge lies in unraveling the limits of one's personal potential. This leads to attempts to realize one's ideals, experimenting with different skills, ideas and discipline. At this stage, enjoyment, rather than pleasure, becomes the main source of reward. But because this stage involves becoming a seeker, the person may also experience a midlife crisis, career changes, and a desperate increase in feelings of fatigue in breaking the limits of personal competence. From this point on, people are ready for the ultimate change in energy diversion: having discovered what they can and, more importantly, cannot, do alone, the ultimate goal of merging with a system larger than themselves – a cause, an idea, a transcendent entity.
Not everyone moves through the stages of this increasing spiral of complexity. Some people never get a chance to get past the first step. When the need for survival keeps coming back so much that one cannot devote much attention to anything else, one will no longer have enough mental energy to invest in the goals of the family or of the wider community. Only self-interest will give meaning to life. The majority of people are almost certainly guaranteed comfort in the second stage of development, in which the welfare of the family, or company, community or nation is the source of meaning. The smaller reach the third level of individualistic antisemitism and only a very few emerge again to advance unity with universal values. So these stages don't necessarily reflect what happens, or what will happen; They describe what can happen if a person is lucky and successful in controlling consciousness.
The four stages outlined above are the simplest model for describing the emergence of meaning according to the same degree of complexity; There are other models that detail up to six or even eight stages. The number of steps is inconsequential; It is of interest that most theories recognize the importance of this dialectical tension, this alternation between differentiation on the one hand and this integration on the other. From this perspective, an individual's life seems to consist of a series of different "games," with different goals and challenges that will change over time as the individual matures. Complexity requires us to invest energy in developing whatever innate skills we have, to become self-reliant, self-reliant, conscious of our own uniqueness and of its limitations. At the same time we must invest energy in recognizing, understanding, and seeking to adapt to forces beyond our personal boundaries. Of course we are not obligated to make any of these plans. But if we don't, it's likely that sooner or later we'll regret it.
Purpose gives direction to an individual's efforts, but it doesn't necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead to all sorts of problems and people will then be prompted to abandon the goal and find some less demanding scenario to guide one's actions. The price people pay for changing their goals whenever adversity threatens them is that even if they can achieve a more pleasant and comfortable life, it will almost certainly end in emptiness and meaninglessness.
The first Pilgrims to settle in this country decided that freedom of worship according to their conscience was necessary to maintain their own integrity. They believe that nothing is more important than maintaining control over their relationship with the Most High. Their belief is not a novel choice of an ultimate goal, one that can direct people's lives, many others have done so before. What set the Pilgrims apart — like the Jews of Masada, the Christian martyrs, the Cathars of southern France in the late Middle Ages, who chose the same way — was that they did not allow persecution and difficulties to dampen their resolve. Instead, they follow the logic of their beliefs no matter where they lead, acting as if the value of those beliefs is worth giving up comfort and even giving up on life itself. And because they acted so, their goals practically became worthwhile regardless of whether they were initially valuable or not. Because goals have become valuable through commitment, they have helped give meaning to the existence of the Pilgrims.
No goal can have much impact unless it is taken seriously. Each goal specifies a set of consequences, and if one is not prepared to deal with them, the goal becomes meaningless. The climber who decides to climb a craggy peak knows that he will be exhausted and in danger for most of the journey. But if he gave up too easily, his conquest would be seen as of little value. The same is true of all flow experiences: there is a reciprocal relationship between goals and the effort it requires. The goal justifies the effort it requires in the first place, but then the effort itself justifies the goal. People decide to get married because the spouse seems worthy to share life with, but unless he or she behaves as if this is true, a life relationship will lose value over time.
With all things considered, it cannot be said that humanity has lacked the courage to support its resolutions. Billions of parents, in every age and in every culture, sacrifice themselves for their children and thereby make their lives more meaningful to them. There must have been many people who spent all their energy protecting their fields and herds. Millions of people have traded it all for the sake of their religion, their country or their art. For those who have done so consistently, despite pain and setbacks, the whole life has the opportunity to become a lasting flow: a focused, coherent, logically ordered set of experiences that, thanks to its inner order, can feel meaningful and enjoyable.
But as the complexity of culture evolves, achieving this absolute level of determination becomes more difficult. There are simply too many competing targets for special attention, and who can say which ones are worthy of a lifetime's dedication? Just a few decades ago, a woman still felt it was perfectly legitimate to make the welfare of her family her ultimate goal. In part, this is due to the fact that she does not have many other options. Today, because she can be an entrepreneur, an academic, an artist or even a soldier, being a wife and mother should be a priority for women is no longer obvious. The same confusion that wealth brings affects us all. Mobility has freed us from our bondage to our birthplace: there is no longer any reason to focus our energies on indigenous communities, to identify with our umbilical burial place. If "the grass looks greener than the other side of the fence", we just have to move into other territory – "what do you think about opening a small restaurant in Australia?" Lifestyle and religion are easily transitionable options. In the past, a hunter was a hunter until the end of his life, a blacksmith devoted his life to perfecting his craft. Now we can shake off our professional identity at will: no one is forced to be an accountant forever.
The richness of choices we face today has expanded individual freedom to a degree that would have been unimaginable a hundred years ago. But the inevitable consequence of attractive choices is the uncertainty of purpose; Uncertainty in turn destroys resolve, and lack of determination leads to the devalidation of choice. Therefore, contrary to expectations, freedom does not necessarily help develop meaning in life. If the rules of the game become too flexible, concentration will collapse and achieving a flow experience will be more difficult. Committing to a goal and the rules it entails is much easier when the options are few and clear.
This does not mean that a return to the rigid values and limited choices of the past will take precedence, even if it is a possibility – which in fact is not a possibility. The complexity and freedom that drives us, which our ancestors fought so hard to achieve, is a challenge we must seek to master. If we do, the lives of our children and grandchildren will be infinitely richer than anything ever experienced on this planet before. If we don't, we risk wasting our energy on meaningless, contradictory goals.
But in the process, how do we know where to invest our mental energy? There's no one out there who can tell us, "This is a goal worth spending your life on." Since there is no absolute certainty to aim for, each person must discover the ultimate purpose for himself. Through trial and error, through intense tempering, we can untangle the confusion of conflicting goals and choose goals that come up with a purpose for action.
Self-knowledge — a remedy so ancient that its value is easily forgotten — is the process through which one can organize conflicting options. "Know thyself" was carved on the entrance to the temple of the prophet Delphi and since then countless devotional verses have praised its effectiveness. The reason this advice is repeated so often is because it really works. However, we need to rediscover everything that arises in the meaning of these words and what true advice they imply to each individual. And to do that, it would be useful to phrase it in terms of today's knowledge and envision a modern method for its application.
Intrapersonal conflict is the result of competition that requires attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to snatch mental energy towards them. Accordingly, the only way to reduce conflict is to filter out essential demands, eliminate inappropriate ones, and establish the priority of what is retained. There are basically two ways to accomplish this: one is what the ancients called vita activa, an action life, and the other is vita contemplativa, or the path of reflection.
Being immersed in vita activa, one will achieve a state of flow through complete participation in specific external challenges. Many great leaders like Winston Churchill or Andrew Carnegie set themselves lifelong goals that they were willing to pursue with great determination without any internal struggle or doubt about prioritization. Successful operators, experienced professionals and talented artisans, learn to trust their judgment and competence to once again begin to act with unconscious spontaneity of the child. If the action arena is challenging enough, one can experience constant flow in his profession, thus, leaving minimal space for noticing the entropies of ordinary life. In this way, the harmony of consciousness is restored indirectly, not by facing contradictions, trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing the chosen goals with such intensity that any potential competition is subdued.
Action helps create order inside, but it has its drawbacks. A person who has made a fierce dedication to achieving a pragmatic outcome can eliminate internal conflict, but often comes at the expense of excessive restriction of options. A young engineer who has the goal of becoming a factory manager at forty-five and putting all his energy into that result can experience several successful years and no breaks. Sooner or later, however, stalled alternatives may reappear in the form of intolerable skepticism and regret: "Is it worth sacrificing all my health for a promotion? What happened to my adorable kids who had suddenly turned into moody teenagers? Now that I've gained power and financial security, what do I do about it?" In other words, goals that have sustained action for a period of time turn out not to have enough power to give meaning to an entire life.
This is where the supposed advantage of a contemplative life comes in. Unbiased empirical reflection, realistic consideration of choices and their consequences, has long been considered the most effective method for a good life. Whether it takes place on the "psychologists' couch," where repressed desires are reintegrated with the rest of consciousness, or whether it is methodically carried out as testing the conscience of the Jesuits, including reviewing an individual's actions one or more times per day to check whether what he or she has done in the past few hours is consistent with long-term goals, then self-knowledge can be pursued in a myriad of ways, Each has the potential to lead to greater inner harmony.
Action and reflection, ideally, should complement and support each other. Action itself is blind, and reflection is powerless. Before investing large amounts of energy in a goal, basic questions should be asked: Is this something I really want to do? Is it something I can enjoy doing? Am I likely to enjoy it in the near future? Is the price that I and others might have to pay worth it? Will I be able to accept myself if I finish it?
These seemingly easy questions are almost impossible to answer for a person who has lost touch and connection with his own experience. If a person does not bother to find out what he wants, if his attention is so caught up in external goals that he does not notice his own feelings, then he cannot plan actions in a meaningful way. On the other hand, if the habit of reflection is well developed, one does not need to go through many soul searches to decide whether a course of action is entropy. He will know, almost intuitively, that this promotion will create more stress than it is worth, or that this particular friendship, so charismatic, will lead to unacceptable tensions in the context of marriage.
Bringing order to the mind in short periods of time is relatively easy; Any realistic goal can do this. A good game, an emergency at work, or a good break at home will focus attention and create a harmonious experience of flow. But to prolong this state throughout life is much more difficult. Because it is necessary to invest energy in goals that are so persuasive that they justify the effort even when our resources are exhausted and when cruel fate denies us the opportunity to have a pleasant life. If the goals are well chosen and if we have the courage to follow them despite opposition, we will be so focused on the actions and events around us that there is no time to feel unhappy. And from there we will feel directly an order in the aspects that constitute life, assembling all thoughts and feelings into a harmonious whole.
The consequence of forging life with purpose and determination is a sense of inner harmony, a dynamic order in the content of consciousness. But it may also be argued that why it must be so difficult to achieve this internal order? Why should one try so hard to make life a coherent flow experience? Isn't man born at peace—isn't orderly human nature?
The initial state of the human being, before the development of a reflective consciousness, must be a state of inner peace disturbed only occasionally by bouts of hunger, sexual instincts, pain and danger. The forms of mental entropy that currently cause us great distress — unfulfilled desires, broken expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt — are almost all recently emerged mind invaders. They are a byproduct of the intense increase in complexity in the cerebral cortex and the symbolic enrichment of culture. They are the dark side of the emergence of consciousness.
If we interpret the lives of animals from a human perspective, we would conclude that they reach a state of flow most of the time because their perception of what to do often coincides with what they are willing to do. When a lion feels hungry, it will begin to growl and search for prey until the hunger is satisfied; Then it lies down sunbathing, dreaming of lion dreams. There is no reason to believe it suffers from unfulfilled ambitions, or is overwhelmed by urgent responsibilities. The skills of animals are always tailored to specific needs because their minds, as they themselves are, contain only information about what is actually in the environment in relation to the state of their bodies, as already determined by instinct. So, a hungry lion is only aware of what will help it find an antelope, while a full lion can focus entirely on the warmth of the sun. Its mind does not consider possibilities that are not available at the present time; It does not imagine pleasant alternatives, nor is it disturbed by the fear of failure.
Animals suffer just as much as we do when their biologically programmed targets fall into despair. They feel bouts of hunger, pain, and unsatisfied sexual desires. Dogs domesticated to be friends with humans will feel distraught when left alone by their owners. But animals are different from humans, they are not in a position to be the cause of their own suffering; They did not evolve enough to be able to feel confused and hopeless after all their needs have been satisfied. When there is no externally induced conflict, they are in harmony with themselves and experience the seamless concentration we humans call a state of flow.
The peculiarities of the human state of mental entropy imply seeing more than one can actually accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow. But this is only possible if an individual is mindful of multiple goals at once, aware of conflicting desires at the same time. It can only happen when the mind not only knows what-what-exists, but also what-can. The more complex the system, the more room there is for alternatives and the more things can go wrong. This is certainly applicable to the evolution of the mind: since it has increased its power to process information, so has the likelihood of intrapersonal conflict. When there are too many requests, choices, challenges, we become anxious; When we are too few, we start to get bored again.
To pursue evolutionary analogy and extend it from biological evolution to social evolution, it is perhaps true that in underdeveloped cultures, where the number and complexity of social roles, goals and actions are negligible, then the opportunity to experience the flow is greater. The myth of "happy barbarians" is based on the observation that in the absence of external threats, prehistoric humans often exhibited coveted serenity toward travelers from more distinct cultures. But the myth tells only half the story: when hungry or hurt, the "barbarians" are no happier than we are; And he may have to be in that state more often than we are. The inner harmony of those who are less technologically advanced is the positive side of their limited choices and of their stable skills, just as the confusion in our souls is an essential consequence of unlimited opportunities and constant possibilities for improvement. Goethe presented this dilemma in the bargain of Dr. Faust, the archetype of modern man who made a contract with Mephistopheles: the good doctor gained knowledge and strength, but at the cost of creating disharmony in the soul.
No need to travel to distant lands to see how currents can be a natural part of life. Every child, before self-consciousness begins to intervene, acts spontaneously with absolute bohemian and fully engaged. Boredom is a state in which children have to learn in harsh ways, in responding to unnaturally restricted choices. Again, this does not mean that children are always happy. Harsh or apathetic parents, poverty and disease, inevitable accidents in life make children extremely miserable. But a child is rarely unhappy without a good reason. The fact that people tend to be very nostalgic for their early years is completely understandable; like Tolstoy's character Ivan Ilyich, many feel that the wholehearted serenity of childhood, full participation in the present is increasingly difficult to find again as the years go by.
When we can only imagine a few opportunities and a few possibilities, achieving harmony is relatively easy. The desire is simple, then the choice is obvious. There is little room for conflict and there is no need for compromise. This is the order of a simple system—the default order, as it is. It's a fragile harmony; Step by step, with the increase in complexity, so does the chance of entropy generated by the system.
We can separate out many factors to explain why consciousness has become more complex. At the species level, the biological evolution of the central nervous system is a cause. No longer ruled purely by instinct and reflexes, the mind is endowed with choice, an unreliable blessing. At the level of human history, the evolution of culture — language, belief systems, technology — is another reason why the content of the mind has become differentiated. As social systems shift from scattered hunting tribes to crowded cities, they create more specialized roles that often require conflicting thoughts and actions from the same person. It is no longer that every man is a hunter, having the same skills and interests as everyone else. The farmer and miller, the clergy and the soldier now see the world through different perspectives. There is no single right manner and each role requires different skills. Also in the life cycle of each individual, with age, one is increasingly exposed to conflicting goals, with incompatible opportunities for action. A child's choices are often few and consistent; With each passing year, they get less and less. The earlier clarity that makes spontaneous flow possible can be overshadowed by the chaotic collision of divergent values, beliefs, choices, and behaviors.
Some would argue that a simpler consciousness, no matter how harmonious, is more precious than a more complex consciousness. While we may admire the serenity of the lion at rest, the peaceful acceptance of the fate of the barbarian tribes, or the child's full participation in the present, these cannot offer a model for resolving our predicament. The order based on innocence is now beyond our reach. Once the forbidden fruit had been picked down from the tree of knowledge, the road back to Eden was permanently closed.
UNITY OF MEANING IN LIFE THEMES
Instead of accepting the unity of purpose provided by genetic instructions or by social norms, the challenge is to create harmony based on our reasoning and choices. Philosophers such as Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau–Ponty have all recognized this task of modern humans by calling it a project, in the sense that actions are directed by goals, providing shape and meaning to an individual's life. Psychologists have used terms such as compatible struggles or life themes. In each case, these concepts define a sequence of goals that are linked to an ultimate goal, giving meaning to whatever an individual accomplishes.
The theme of life, like a game, prescribes what rules and actions an individual must follow in order to experience the flow state, determining what will make existential enjoyable. With a life theme, everything that happens will have a meaning—not necessarily a positive meaning, but still meaning. If someone puts all their energy into the goal of making a million dollars before the age of thirty, then whatever happens is a step forward, or getting closer, or deviating from that goal. Clear feedback will help keep the person fully engaged in his or her actions. Even if they lose all their money, their thoughts and actions are bound together by a common purpose and they will have a rewarding experience. Similarly, a person who decides that finding a cure for cancer is something she wants to achieve above all else will know if she is getting closer to her goal — whatever the case is, what needs to be done is clear and whatever she does will make sense.
When one's mental energy merges into a life subject, consciousness achieves harmony. But not every life theme has the same performance. Existentialist philosophers make a clear distinction between authentic and inauthentic projects. The first describes the theme of a person recognizing that choices are free and making personal decisions based on a rational evaluation of their experiences. It doesn't matter what the choice is, as long as it expresses what the person really feels and believes. Unreal projects are those that someone chooses because they are what he or she feels he or she should do, because they are what everyone else is also doing and therefore there are no alternatives. Genuine projects tend to be driven from within, chosen because they have intrinsic value; Unreal projects are driven by outside forces. A similar distinction is between life themes explored, when a person scripts his actions based on personal experience and perception of choice; And life themes are accepted, when a person simply assumes a predetermined role from a script written by others long ago.
Both of these types of life themes help give meaning to life, but each has its own drawbacks. The accepted life theme will work well as long as the social system is healthy; otherwise, it can trap people into corrupt, perverted targets. Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi who calmly transported tens of thousands of people to poison gas chambers, was a man who viewed bureaucratic rules as sacred. He probably also experienced the flow when he altered the complicated schedules of trains to ensure that scarce freight trucks were available when needed and bodies were transported at the lowest cost. He never seemed to question whether what he was asked to do was right or wrong. As long as he obeyed the order, his consciousness was harmonized. For him, the meaning of life was to be part of a strong, organized institution; Nothing else is important. In peacetime, a well-organized man like Adolf Eichmann can be a beloved pillar of the community. But the flaw in the subject of this person's life becomes apparent when unscrupulous and deranged people take control of society; Then such a righteous citizen will turn into an abetting of crimes without changing his goals and without even realizing the inhumanity of his actions.
The themes of life explored, are fragile for another reason: since they are products of a personal struggle to define a purpose for life, they have less social compatibility; Because they are often novel and idiosyncratic, they may be seen as crazy or unconstructive by others. Some of the most powerful life themes are based on humanity's ancient goals, but are rediscovered in a fresh way and freely chosen by an individual. Malcolm X79, who, in his early years, followed a script of behavior for young men living in slums — fights and drug trafficking only to go to prison — through reading and reflection, set an entirely different goal for achieving dignity and self-respect. In essence, he created an entirely new identity, even though it was an identity made up of pieces of previous human achievement. Instead of continuing to play the game of delinquents, he created a more complex purpose — to help the lives of many other marginalized people, both black and white.
A man interviewed in one of our studies, whom we tentatively called E., provided another example of how to detect a life subject, even though the purpose underlying that theme was a very ancient one. E. grew up the son of a poor immigrant family at the turn of the century. His parents had little English and could barely read and write. They were intimidated by the frenetic pace of New York's life, but they worshipped and admired America and the government that represented it. When E. was seven years old, his parents spent a large portion of their savings to buy him a bicycle for his birthday. A few days later, while riding his bike in the neighborhood, he was hit by a car ignoring a stop sign. E. was seriously injured and his bicycle was crushed. The driver of the car was a wealthy doctor; he drove E. to the hospital, asking him not to report what had happened, in return he promised to pay the full cost of his treatment and buy him a new bike. E. and his parents were convinced and they agreed to the deal. Unfortunately, the doctor never reappeared and E.'s father had to borrow money to pay expensive hospital bills; The bike was never compensated.
This event may have become a trauma that left a permanent scar on E.'s soul, turning him into a cynical person who since then will take care to protect his personal interests at all costs. Instead, E. learned a strange lesson from his experience. E. used it to create a life theme that not only gave meaning to his life, but also helped reduce entropy in the experiences of many others. For years after the accident, E. and his parents felt bitter, cynical and bewildered by the machinations of strangers. E.'s father, feeling that he was a failure, drank heavily, became more sad and closed-off. It was as if poverty and helplessness had worked out what they expected. But when he was fourteen or fifteen, at school, E. read the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. E. connect the principles in those documents with one's own experience. He gradually realizes that his family's poverty and corruption are not their fault, but the result of not being aware of their rights, of not knowing the rules of the game, of not having effective representation among those in power.
He decides to become a lawyer, not only to improve his own life, but also to make sure that injustices like the one he suffered will not happen easily again to others in his shoes. Once he set this goal for his life, E.'s determination never wavered. E. was accepted into law school, clerked for a prominent judge, then became a judge himself, and at the peak of his career, he spent many years in the president's cabinet contributing to the development of stronger civil rights laws and policies to help the disadvantaged. Until the end of his life, his thoughts, actions, and feelings were all united by the topic he had chosen as a teenager. Everything he did until his last days was part of a great game, tied together by goals and rules that he had agreed to follow. He feels his life has meaning and he enjoys taking on the challenges that come his way.
E.'s example illustrates some common characteristics about how people forge explored life themes. Initially, the theme in many cases was a reaction to a tremendous personal trauma someone suffered in the early stages of life – orphaned, abandoned or treated unfairly. But what matters is not the injury itself; The outside event never determines what the topic will be. What matters is the interpretation that one imposes on suffering. If a father is a brutal alcoholic, his children have several options to account for what's wrong: they can tell themselves that the father is an old bastard who deserves to die; that he was a man and that all men were weak and violent; that poverty is the cause of the father's suffering and that the only way to avoid the same fate as him is to become rich; that a large part of his behavior came from his helplessness in life and lack of education. Only the last of these seemingly equal explanations is likely to lead to the direction of life topics as E. developed.
So the next question is, what kinds of interpretations for an individual's suffering can lead to counter-entropy life topics? If a child tormented by a sadistic father comes to the conclusion that the problem lies in human nature, that all men are weak and violent, there is not much he can do to cope or turn around with the situation. How can a child change human nature? To find purpose in suffering, one must interpret it as an overcoming challenge. In this case, by interpreting his problem as due to the inability of disenfranchised minorities and not his father's fault, E. was able to develop the right skills — his legal training — to face the challenges he saw at the root of what was wrong in his life his personal. What transforms the aftermath of a traumatic event into a challenge that gives life meaning is what was called the dissipative structure in the previous chapter, or the ability to create order out of chaos.
Finally, a complex life subject, without entropy, is rarely formed by a reaction to just one individual problem. Instead, the challenge becomes generalized to others, or to humanity as a whole. For example, in E.'s case, he attributed the problem of helplessness not only to himself or his family, but also to all poor immigrants in the same situation as his parents experienced. Therefore, whatever solutions he finds to his own problems benefit not only himself, but many others as well. This way of generalizing solutions is typical of life topics without entropy; It brings harmony to the lives of many people.
Gottfried, one of those interviewed by our University of Chicago team, provides a similar example. As a child, Gottfried was very close to his mother and the memory of his early years is bright and warm. But before he was ten, his mother had cancer and died in agony. The young man may feel pity for himself and become depressed, or he may develop bitterness into a protective layer. Instead, Gottfried began to think of the disease as his personal enemy and vowed to defeat it. He earned his medical degree as expected and became a doctor studying oncology and the results of his work became part of a model of knowledge that would eventually liberate humanity from this scourge. In this case, once again, a personal tragedy turned into a challenge that could be coped. In developing the skills to meet that challenge, the individual also improves the lives of others.
Since Freud's time, psychologists have been interested in explaining how childhood traumas lead to psychosis in adults. This line of causality is quite easy to understand. Harder to explain and more interesting are the opposite result: instances in which suffering gives an individual the incentive to become a great artist, a wise statesman, or a brilliant scientist. If one assumes that external events must determine psychiatric consequences, then it is reasonable to assume that the disturbing response to suffering is normal, while the constructive response is "defensive" or "sublimation." But if one assumes that people have choices about how they react to external events, in what they attribute to suffering, then one can interpret the constructive response as normal and the disturbing response as a failure to overcome the challenge, is a flaw in the ability to reach a flow state.
What makes some people able to develop a cohesive purpose, while others struggle to go through an empty or meaningless life? Of course, there is no simple answer, because whether a person discovers a harmonious thread in the superficial chaos of experiences is clearly influenced by many factors, both internal and external. It's easy to suspect that life has meaning for people who were born disabled, poor and oppressed. But even under these circumstances, this is not the case for sure: Antonio Gramsci, the philosopher of humanitarian socialism and a man who left a deep mark on European thought recently, was born already a hunchback in a miserable peasant hut. When he grew up, his father was imprisoned for years (which, in fact, was tried unfairly) and the family could barely make ends meet. As a child, Antonio was so ill that it is said that, for many years, his mother dressed him in his best clothes every evening and put him to sleep in a coffin, thinking that he would not survive. Overall, it's not a very promising start. However, despite these and many other disadvantages, Gramsci struggled to survive and even succeeded in self-education. And he didn't stop at gaining sufficient assurance as a teacher, because he decided what he really wanted in life was to fight against social conventions that had depleted his mother's health and ruined his father's honor. Eventually, he became a university professor, a member of parliament and one of the most courageous anti-fascist leaders. Until the end, before his death in one of Mussolini's prisons, he wrote excellent essays about the wonderful world we could have if people stopped being afraid and greedy.
There are so many examples of this personality type that one certainly cannot assume that there is a direct causal relationship between external disturbances in childhood and the lack of meaning on the inside in later life: Thomas Edison as a child was very ill and was judged by teachers to be retarded; Eleanor Roosevelt was once seen as a lonely and mentally troubled young woman; Albert Einstein's early years were filled with anxiety and frustration — yet they eventually created useful and empowering lives for themselves.
If there is a common strategy among these and among other successful people in building meaning for their experiences, it is one that is so simple and obvious that it almost seems silly to say. However, since it is often overlooked, especially today, it is helpful to consider it. This strategy lies in drawing from the order established by the patterns of previous generations that will help avoid confusion in our minds. There is a lot of knowledge — or streamlined information — that has been accumulated in the culture, ready for this adoption. Masterpieces of music, architecture, art, poetry, drama, dance, philosophy and religion are available to anyone who sees them as examples of how to achieve harmony from chaos. Yet many people ignore them, expecting to give meaning to their lives with their own tools.
It's like each generation trying to build material culture from scratch. No one with a clear mind wants to reinvent the wheel, fire, electricity, or the millions of objects and processes that we take for granted as part of the human environment. Instead, we learn to do these things by receiving orderly information from teachers, from books, from role models, in order to benefit from the knowledge of the past and ultimately outperform it. To exclude information about the way of life that our ancestors had so hard to accumulate or the desire to discover for themselves a set of achievable goals, is false arrogance. The chances of success for this are as much as trying to build an electron microscope without the tools and knowledge of physics.
People in adulthood who develop cohesive life themes often recall that when they were very young, their parents used to tell stories or read books to them. Fairy tales, biblical tales, historical heroic deeds, and profound family events told by dear and trusted adults will often be the first hints of meaningful order an individual gleans from past experiences. Conversely, in our studies, we also found that individuals who never focused on any goal, or who blindly accepted the social lifestyle around them, tended not to remember their parents reading or telling them stories as children. Saturday morning children's shows on television, with their meaningless emotional advocacy, are unlikely to achieve the same goal.
Regardless of an individual's background, there are many opportunities later in life to draw meaning from the past. Most people who explore complex life topics remember a predecessor or historical figure they greatly admire and look up to, or they recall reading a book that reveals new possibilities for action. For example, a now-renowned social scientist, widely respected for his integrity, told how he was impressed as a teenager when he read A Tale of Two Cities, when he read A Tale of Two Cities, he was struck by the social and political turmoil that Dickens described, which was modeled from the turmoil that the author's parents experienced in Europe after World War I — made him decide to spend his life trying to understand why people make each other's lives miserable. Another boy raised in a harsh orphanage, after coming across a story by Horatio Alger — the story of a poor and lonely young man who enters life by hard work and fortune — wondered, "if he could do it, Why can't I?" Today this person is a retired banker and is famous for his philanthropy. Others remember being forever altered by the rational order of Plato's Dialogues or by the brave actions of characters in a science fiction story.
At its best, literature contains orderly information about behavior, patterns of purpose, and examples of lives that are successfully colored around meaningful goals. Many people faced with the arbitrariness of existence have found hope from knowing that there are others before them who have faced similar problems and have prevailed. And this is just literature; What about music, art, philosophy and religion?
I occasionally run a seminar for business managers on the topic of how to handle the midlife crisis. Many of these successful executives, who have risen far in the ranks of their organizations and often have their private and family lives in turmoil, welcome the opportunity to spend some time thinking about what they want to do next. For many years, I have trusted the best theories and research results in developmental psychology for lectures and discussions. I was moderately satisfied with the way these workshops played out and participants often felt that they had learned something useful. But I was never entirely satisfied that the documents made enough sense.
I finally came up with the idea of trying something more unusual. I'll start the seminar with a quick review of Dante's Divina Commedia. After all, as a work written more than six hundred years ago, this is the earliest description I know of a midlife crisis and how to solve it. Dante wrote in the first line of his magnificent psalm: "In the middle of my life's journey, I found myself lost in the dark forest, nowhere to be seen in the righteous way." What ensued was a grip and in many ways still related to the difficulties encountered in middle age.
First of all, wandering through the dark forest, Dante realizes that three ferocious beasts are stalking him, licking his lips in anticipation. They consist of a lion, a lynx and a wolf, representing ambition, lust and greed. According to the protagonist of one of the best-selling works of 1988, a middle-aged New York bond trader in Tom Wolfe's satirical novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Dante's enemy turns out to be a thirst for power, sex and money. To avoid being destroyed by them, Dante tries to escape by climbing a hill. But the beasts kept approaching and in desperation, Dante called for divine help. His prayer was answered by an epiphany: it was the ghost of Virgil, a poet who died more than a thousand years before Dante was born, but who wrote the wise and magnificent stanzas that Dante admired so much that he thought the poet was his teacher. Virgil tries to reassure Dante: The good news is that there is a way out of the dark forest. The bad news is that road leads through hell. And through hell they slowly move towards their path and as they walk, they witness the suffering of those who have never chosen a goal and witness the even worse fate of those whose life purpose increases entropy – the so-called "sinners".
I'm pretty preoccupied with how those disturbing business executives are receptive to this centuries-old fable. I was worried that they would most likely see it as a waste of their precious time. But I don't need to worry. For we have never had such an open and serious discussion about the pitfalls of middle-aged life and about options for enrichment in the years that followed as we had after talking about the Divine Comedy. Later, several participants privately told me that starting a workshop with Dante was a great idea. Dante's story focuses on obvious issues so much that it becomes a lot easier to think about and talk about them afterwards.
Dante is an important role model for another reason. Although his poetic genius was shaped by a deeply religious morality, it is very clear to anyone who reads it that Dante's Christianity is not an accepted faith but a discovered one. In other words, the theme of religious life he created was composed of the best understandings of Christianity combined with Greek philosophy and Islamic wisdom that were refined and brought into Europe. At the same time, his hell was densely populated with popes, cardinals and clergy condemned to eternal exile. Even his first instructor, Virgil, was not a Christian saint but a pagan poet. Dante realized that every system of spiritual order, when incorporated into an earthly structure—like an organized church—would begin to suffer from the effects of entropy. So, to derive meaning from a belief system, one must first compare the information contained in it with one's own specific experience, retain what makes sense, and then reject the rest.
Today, we still occasionally encounter people whose lives embody an inner order based on the spiritual insights of the major religions of the past. Despite what we read every day about the unethics of the stock market, the corruption of defense contractors, and the lack of principle in political circles, examples to the contrary persist. Therefore, there are also successful entrepreneurs who spend some free time in hospitals chatting with dying patients because they believe that extending arms to those who suffer is a necessary part of a meaningful life. And there are many who continue to receive strength and serenity from prayer, for whom a personally meaningful belief system has provided goals and rules for intense flow experiences.
But it seems clear that more and more people are not saved by traditional religions and belief systems. Many people cannot separate the truth in old doctrines from the distortions and degradations that time has added to them, and because they cannot accept mistakes, they also reject the truth. Others are so desperate for some order that — nakedly speaking — they cling to whatever faith is at hand and become orthodox Christians, or Muslims, or communists.
Are there any possibilities for a new set of goals and means to emerge to help give meaning to the lives of our children in the next century? Some are confident that Christianity, which has restored its former glory, will meet that need. Others still believe that communism will solve the problem of chaos in the human experience and that its order will spread to the whole world. For now, neither of these results seems very positive.
If a new faith is to capture our imagination, it must be one that will rationally account for what we know, what we feel, what we hope, and what scares us. It should be a system of beliefs that will direct our mental energy toward meaningful goals, a system that provides rules for a lifestyle capable of providing a flowing experience.
It is difficult to imagine such a belief system without being based on, at least to some extent, what science has revealed about humanity and about the universe. Without such a foundation, our consciousness would be torn between faith and knowledge. But if science is to serve as a real help, it will have to transform itself. In addition to the various specialized disciplines that work towards describing and controlling isolated aspects of reality, science will have to develop a unified interpretation of all that is known and link it to humanity and their destiny.
One way to accomplish this is through the concept of evolution. Things are most important to us — such as questions like: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What forces shape our lives? What is good and what is bad? How do we relate to others and to the rest of the universe? What are the consequences of our actions? can be discussed in a systematic manner in relation to what we know now about evolution and even in relation to what we will know in the future.
The obvious critique of this scenario is that science in general, and evolutionary science in particular, only deals with what exists, not what should exist. In another way, faiths and beliefs are not limited by reality; They work with what is right, what is coveted. But one of the consequences of the evolution of faith may be a closer fusion between what exists and what should exist. When we better understand why we are who we are, when we more fully appreciate the sources of our instinctive motivations, social controls, forms of cultural expression — all factors that contribute to the formation of consciousness — it will be easier to direct our energy where we need to go.
And the evolutionary outlook also points to a goal worthy of our energy resources. There is no doubt about the fact that over billions of years of activity on earth, more and more complex life forms have emerged, culminating in the complexity of the human nervous system. As a result, the cerebral cortex developed consciousness, which today covers the globe as comprehensively as the atmosphere. The reality of complexity encompasses both what exists and what should be: it happens—given the conditions to rule the earth, it inevitably does—but it may not continue unless we want it to continue. The future of evolution is now in our hands.
Over the past few thousand years — which was only a moment in the entire evolutionary period — humanity has made incredible advances in the differentiation of consciousness. We have developed an awareness that humanity is separate from other forms of life. We have conceived of each individual human being as separate from each other. We invented abstraction and analysis — the ability to separate aspects of objects and processes from each other, such as the velocity of fall of an object and its mass. It is this distinction that has created science, technology, and humanity's unprecedented power to build as well as destroy their habitat.
But complexity also implies simultaneous integration with differentiation. The task of the following decades was to recognize this underdeveloped component of the mind. Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from others and from our environment, we now need to learn to unite ourselves with other entities around us without losing our hard-earned individuality. The most promising belief about the future may be based on the clear realization that the entire universe is a system linked by general laws and that it makes no sense to impose our dreams and desires on nature without regard for them. Aware of the limits of human will, accepting symbiosis instead of thinking of ourselves as dominating in the universe, we will feel the relief of the exiles finally returning home. Then the problem of meaning will be solved when the purpose of the individual merges with the flow of the universe.
THE FLOW OF CREATIVITY
The following passage is taken from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (HarperCollins, 1996).
Creative people are different from others in many different ways, but there's one way they all agree on it: They all love what they do. It's not the hope of fame or money that drives them, rather, what motivates them is the opportunity to do what they love. Jacob Rabinow explains: "We create for joy. I don't start with the thought, 'What makes money?' This is a harsh world; Money is important. But if I had to choose between making myself happy and making money, I would choose what makes me happy." Novelist Naguib Mahfouz agrees with this in a softer tone: "I love what I do more than I love the product it creates. I am dedicated to the work regardless of its outcome." We found similar sentiments in each interview.
What's special about this case is that we talked to engineers and chemists, writers and musicians, entrepreneurs and social reformers, historians and architects, sociologists and doctors — and they all agreed that they do things first and foremost because they're interesting. Still, there are many others in these same professions who don't love what they do. So we have to make the assumption that what counts here is not what people do, but how they do it. Being an engineer or carpenter, in itself, is not enjoyable. But if one does it in certain ways, then the work becomes a reward by nature, worthy of doing it just for the pleasure of doing it. What's the secret to transforming activities to make them worthwhile on their own?
PROGRAMMED TO BE CREATIVE
When people are asked to choose from a list of the best descriptions of how they feel about doing the things they love most—reading, climbing, playing chess, or anything else—the description is usually chosen by the majority as "sketching or discovering something new." First of all, it may seem strange that dancers, climbers and composers all agree that their most enjoyable experience resembles a journey of discovery. But if we think about it more closely, it seems entirely plausible that at least some people enjoy exploring and creating more than everything else.
To see the logic of this, try a thought experiment. Suppose that you want to create a body, a type of artificial life that has the best chance of surviving in a complex and unpredictable environment, such as Earth. You want to introduce into this body a few mechanisms that help it be ready to face as many unexpected dangers as possible and take advantage of the opportunities that appear. How will you do this? Obviously, you'll want to design a body that's fundamentally deliberate, one that learns the best solutions from the past and keeps repeating them, trying to conserve energy, staying alert, and following behavior patterns that have proven effective in the past.
But the best solution would also include a transition system in some institutions that will provide a positive reinforcement each time you discover something new or acquire a novel idea or behavior, regardless of whether it is immediately useful. It is especially important to ensure that the creature is not only rewarded for useful discoveries, otherwise it will be seriously defective in the face of the future. Because no secular human being can predict the kind of situation this new creature will find itself in tomorrow, next year, or the next decade. Therefore, the best program is the one that will help this creature feel good whenever it discovers something new, regardless of its presence as unhelpful. And this is something that seems to have happened to us humans in the process of evolution.
By random transformations, some individuals have developed a nervous system through which the discovery of novel things stimulates manic centers in the brain. Just as some individuals derive intense pleasure from sex and others from food, there must be individuals who derive intense pleasure from learning new things. It is likely that curious children often put themselves in more danger so that they may die sooner than their superficial friends. But at the same time, it's also possible that groups that learn to appreciate the curious children in their communities — and try to protect and reward them so they can mature and create their successors — are more successful than those who ignore the creativity hidden in their communities.
If this is true, we are descendants of ancestors who recognized the importance of novelty, protected individuals who found joy in creativity and learned from it. Because they have individuals who love to explore and invent that exist among their communities, they are better prepared to face unpredictable conditions that could threaten their survival. So we share a tendency for enjoyment in whatever we do, as long as we can do it in a new way, as long as we can discover and sketch something new out of it. This is why creativity, no matter what the field, is enjoyable. This is why Brenda Milner, along with many others, says, "I can say that I have no bias in determining what's important or what's great, because every new discovery, even the smallest, is incredibly exciting the moment it's found."
But this is only part of the story. Another force motivates us, and it is more primal and powerful than the impulse of creativity: It is the force of entropy. This is also a survival mechanism that has been integrated into our genetic code through evolution. It gives us a sense of serenity when we are comfortable, when we are relaxed, when we can rest with a sense of serenity without expending energy. If we don't have this built-in regulator, we can easily end ourselves off by exhaustion and then not have enough reserves of health, fat, or courage to face unexpected situations.
This is why the urge to rest, curl up comfortably on the sofa whenever possible, is so strong. Because this urge to preserve is so strong, for most people "free time" means an opportunity to relax completely, to let go of the mind. In the absence of external demands, entropy jumps out, taking over our bodies and minds, unless we understand what's going on.
We, in general, are often torn by two opposing instruction streams programmed into our brains: a command to put in minimal effort, a creative imperative on the other.
For most individuals, entropy seems to be in a stronger state, and they enjoy more comfort than the challenge of discovery. Others, like those who told their stories in this book, are more willing to respond to the rewards of discovery. But we all respond to both types of rewards; Tendencies toward conserving energy as well as using it constructively are co-existing elements of our inheritance. Which type prevails depends not only on the genetic code, but may also depend on our experience. However, unless enough people are motivated by the enjoyment that comes from facing challenges, by the discovery of a new way of living and working, there will be no cultural revolution, no progress in thought or emotion. Therefore, it is important to have a better understanding of what enjoyment consists of and how creativity can deliver it.
WHAT IS ENJOYMENT?
To answer this question, years ago I started studying people who seem to do things they enjoy but don't get any monetary or fame rewards from them. Chess players, climbers, dancers and composers all devote many hours each week to their favorite work. Why did they do that? The story is unraveled from their conversations with them, that what constantly motivates them is the nature of the experience they feel when immersed in the activity. This feeling does not come when they relax, when they use drugs or drink alcohol, nor when they use the luxury of wealth. Instead, this feeling is often included in painful, risky, difficult activities that can enhance one's competence and contain an element of novelty and discovery. This optimal experience is what I call flow, because many respondents in my research described feeling when things go smoothly as an almost automatic state that requires no effort, but still has a high level of concentration. of consciousness.
The flow experience is described in almost homogeneous terms regardless of the activity that brings about it. Athletes, artists, devotees, scientists, and ordinary people all describe their most rewarding experiences in similar terms. And that description doesn't vary by culture, gender or age; old or young, rich or poor, male or female, American or Japanese all seem to experience enjoyment in similar ways, although they can do very different things to achieve it. There are nine key elements that are repeated to describe the feeling of an enjoyable experience.
1. Have clear goals step by step. Contrary to what happens in everyday life, at work or at home, where there are often conflicting requirements and unclear goals, in a flow activity we always know what needs to be done. The musician knows what the next note to hit is, the climber knows what the next step should be. When a job is enjoyable, it also has clear goals. The surgeon knows how the operation should be carried out step by step, and the farmer has a plan for how the crop should go.
2. Have instant responses to action. Again, contrary to the usual state of work, in a flow experience we know how well we are doing. The musician knows right away that the note he has just played is the right note. The climber immediately realized that the step was correct because he/she was still climbing and had not fallen off the cliff. The surgeon saw no blood in the operating compartment, and the farmer saw rows of toothpicks in the field.
3. There is a balance between challenge and skill. In flow, we feel our abilities match wonderfully with opportunities for action. In everyday life sometimes we feel that the challenges are too high for our skills, and then we feel discouraged and anxious. Or we feel like our potential is far greater than the opportunities that present it, and then we get bored. Playing tennis or chess against an opponent much stronger than us will be frustrating, while playing against a much weaker opponent will be frustrating. In an indulgent game, players balance the thin line between boredom and anxiety. The same goes for when work, or a dialogue, or a relationship goes well.
4. Action and perception are united. An example of everyday experience is that our mind is detached from what we are doing. Sitting in class, students often appear attentive to the teacher but are actually thinking about lunch, or about the appointment the night before. The worker thinks about the weekend, the mother while cleaning the house worries about her child; The golfer's mind is preoccupied with how his shot will be judged by his friends. In the flow, our focus is on what we do. The mind focuses on a point where the state requires a commensurate between challenge and skill, and it becomes possible thanks to clear goals and constant valuable feedback.
5. Other aspects are excluded from consciousness. Another typical element of flow is that we perceive only what relates to the present before us. If a musician thinks about his health or tax troubles while playing music, he will definitely play the wrong note. If a surgeon lets his mind wander, the patient's life is in danger. Flow is the result of intense focus on the present, which frees us from the common fears that cause depression and anxiety in everyday life.
6. No fear of failure. When we are in the flow, we are too immersed, unable to bother with failure. Some people describe it as feeling like total control, but the reality is not that we are in a state of complete control, but that the problem of control doesn't even come to mind. If it does, we may no longer be fully focused, because our attention is divided between what we do and our sense of control. The reason that failure is not a problem is because in the flow of activities the goals to be accomplished are very clear and our skills are commensurate with the challenge.
7. Self-consciousness disappears. In our daily lives we keep an eye on how we appear in front of others, we are always vigilant to protect ourselves from possible scorns and are always preoccupied with creating a good faith impression. Typically, this self-awareness is a burden. In the flow, we are too immersed in what we do to care about protecting our egos. Yet after a moment of the flow experience ends, we often come out of that state with a stronger conception of the self; We know that we have just won a difficult challenge. We may even feel that we have just transcended the boundaries of our ego and become a part, at least for a moment, of a greater existence. The musician feels merged with the cosmic harmony, the athlete merges with his team, the reader of a novel can live in an alternate reality for several hours. Paradoxically, the ego is expanded through forgetfulness activities—the ego.
8. The sense of time is distorted. Often, in flow activity we forget about time, and many hours can pass as quickly as a few minutes. Or the opposite goes like this: A figure skater might narrate an instantaneous spin that takes just one second in real time that seems to last up to ten minutes. In other words, the watch no longer accommodates expressing the length of time experienced; Our sense of how much time has passed depends on what we do.
9. The activity becomes an activity with a purpose in itself. Whenever the majority of these conditions appear, we begin to enjoy whatever provides an optimal experience. Maybe I'm afraid of using a computer and just learn to use it because my job depends on it. But as my skills improved, and I realized what computers could help me do, I was able to start enjoying using computers for fun in itself. By this point, activity has a purpose in itself, which in Greek means something important in itself, in itself. Some activities such as art, music, and sports often have a purpose in themselves: There is no reason to do these things except to feel the experience they provide. Almost everything in life has an intrinsic purpose: We do it not because we enjoy it, but to achieve the goals that follow it. And there are some activities that do both: Pianists are paid to play, surgeons have good status and income for performing operations, and also receive enjoyment for doing what they do. In many ways, the secret to a happy life is to learn to gain a flow experience from the activities we are forced to do as much as possible. If work and family life become purposeful in themselves, then nothing in our lives is wasted and everything we do is worth it for itself.